Editorial: Workers most integral part of LWC success, future

The Daily Northwestern Editorial Board

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Last Thursday, Northwestern’s Living Wage Campaign celebrated as campus workers achieved a landmark victory in their fight for better wages and benefits. As reported in today’s edition of The Daily, more than 100 subcontracted food service workers voted to ratify a contract with Sodexo that features, among other benefits, a guaranteed $10-minimum wage and free or reduced health care.

The Daily would like to acknowledge, as many Living Wage Campaign members did Thursday, that the revamped contract is a goal primarily realized by the workers themselves. Nine workers participated in a negotiation committee that cooperated with members of the local Chicago union, UNITE HERE 1, to produce the end contract. Thursday’s vote exemplified precisely the sort of mobilizing power the LWC can affect: the ability to facilitate debate and action among workers.

It was only after the LWC began working with campus employees that tenable and beneficial goals were set and eventually reached. The Daily hopes the LWC will continue to help negotiate fair contracts for all campus workers, as the new contracts do not affect some workers, such as janitorial staffers.

The Daily also applauds University administration for inviting discussion between Sodexo and campus employees. While the relationship between LWC and administration has been, at times, tense, the newly ratified contract offers both parties the opportunity to reopen a productive dialogue.

As Rafael Marquez, the lead cook at 1835 Hinman and a member of the negotiating committee, said, it’s a battle that would never have been waged, much less won, without the support of the student members of the LWC.

Since its inception in November 2009, the LWC has been a prominent, if controversial, presence on campus. The group’s tactics have ranged from gathering thousands of signatures for petitions to protesting loudly outside University President Morton Schapiro’s office. Schapiro, as well as professors, administrators and students alike have questioned the tenability of implementing a $13.23-living wage, as calculated by the Heartland Alliance.

The edit board of The Daily has also questioned the practicality and efficacy of pushing for a specific wage and warned against the layoffs or worker turnover that such a rate increase would inevitably require. But this contract, instead of offering an immediate “living wage,” constitutes a more pragmatic approach to increasing the benefits received by food service workers at NU. The provisions aside from increased wages include better health care and pension plans, both of which will improve the quality of life for workers and their families.

At one of the voting sessions Thursday, a campus worker shared her story of paying more than $300 monthly to cover her family’s health insurance. Under the new plan, she will pay less than half that amount. While she may not be making a ‘living wage,’ the new health care plan is an equally, if not more, progressive step.

The Daily’s edit board applauds the revamped contract and, perhaps equally importantly, the process that yielded the new wages and benefits. For the first time, workers were able to negotiate successfully with Sodexo for the benefits they felt would most improve their welfare — and they did so on their own terms. LWC members were not involved in these negotiations, but instead offered support and consultation for the workers outside of these meetings. Student LWC members showed their support for campus workers by being present at Thursday’s voting sessions.

For a campaign that started out almost entirely student driven, it marked a symbolic and substantive shift for the LWC. If the LWC intends to continue fighting for workers, The Daily hopes it will also continue fighting alongside workers.

The Daily applauds the success the LWC has had in better integrating workers into the NU community and making their struggles more visible. The word ‘community’ is a de-facto buzz word on college campus, but the scope of that term is often less all-encompassing than students and administrators may realize. Whether or not students and faculty agree with the economics or politics of the LWC, it has challenged NU to evaluate the equality and inclusiveness of our community. And that, The Daily believes, is a worthy cause.